Even if you're not actively involved in the stock market, you probably own stocks. If you have a retirement plan at work, if you have a 401(k), or an IRA, you are probably invested in stocks, even if it's via mutual funds. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, or perhaps not until after you have retired, at some point you will need and want to take more control over your personal investments. Or maybe you'd just like to buy a few shares of Apple, because you enjoy using its products, or purchase a share or two of Disney to give to your child or grandchild.
With today's spread of online discount brokers, dipping your toes into the investment waters is certainly much easier than ever. Most of these brokerages have gone a long way toward making their Web interfaces accessible with screen readers and magnification, but until now there have still been costs, primarily in the form of commissions, that limited the novice, very small investor.
For example, at the time of this writing, a single share of Intel (stock symbol INTC) cost just under $37. But add to that a $7 to $10 commission and the price of your single share has risen by 23 to 35 percent. To make a single penny of profit on that one share, the price of Intel would have to rise to 51 to 58 dollars. Granted, this is an extreme example. Most people do buy more than a single share at a time. But it does demonstrate how being a small investor can be an uphill climb. Add to that the difficulties people with visual impairments have gathering the information they need to make investment decisions, and for many visually impaired individuals, it's like stepping into the batter's box with not one but two strikes already called against them.
AccessWorld has published many articles on accessible personal finance. In this article, we're going to look at a new online brokerage that goes a long way toward resolving the issues of both expense and accessibility.
Accessible No-Commission Trading with Robinhood
Robinhood is an online brokerage that offers both iOS and Android mobile apps. Unlike other online brokerages that offer apps, the Robinhood app is the only way you can make stock trades with Robinhood. Also unlike other brokerages, at Robinhood, trades made in a simple cash account are 100 percent commission-free. They make money by offering margin accounts, which enable sophisticated traders to borrow against their shares and double their purchasing power. Like other brokerages, Robinhood charges interest on these borrowed funds. It also charges $10 per month for these accounts, but after that all trades are commission-free.
After downloading and opening the app (for this review I used the iPhone app running iOS 10.3.1 and Robinhood version 5.28.1), the user is invited to create a new Robinhood account. There is a welcome video that I was unable to access (the play button did not work with VoiceOver) but the account setup was completely accessible. Even better, Robinhood uses e-Signatures. I did not have to print, sign, and mail any forms before my account could be activated; I completed the entire account setup online. I could then explore the app, create Watch Lists, check news, and do everything else but actually trade shares before I sent them a single dollar.
Even funding my account online from my bank was completely accessible. All I needed were my bank account and routing numbers. Robinhood then made a few deposits totaling less than a dollar into my account. Once I had verified the amounts to authenticate the link, I could transfer funds in and out of my Robinhood account directly from the app's Banking tab.
Exploring the Robinhood Interface
Robinhood uses a card-based interface. The VoiceOver three-finger swipe gesture did not work to move from card to card, but near the center of each screen there is a control to move ahead by one screen. Unfortunately, using VoiceOver at least, you can only move forward and circle back to the beginning—I was unable to navigate backwards.
Basic cards include an account summary page and Watch List cards, which offer current price information and an accessible stock chart I will describe below. Double tap a stock symbol, or perform a search, and a different card appears with all the usual current price and volume information, along with buttons to call up recent relevant news items and a Buy or Sell button, depending on your current account holdings.
Robinhood also features a set of alerts for events such as Watch List company news, major price increases or decreases, and trade notifications. Use the Settings tab to activate these alerts and receive them via email, text message, or both.
As mentioned, each security offers a chart, which you can set to various time periods, including daily, weekly, and monthly. Here's where things get interesting. When you swipe over the chart using VoiceOver, the app produces a series of tones that rise and fall along with the stock price. This is a feature that was specifically added for users with visual impairments.
I found Robinhood's audible charts quite useful for getting a quick overview of the security's price action. I believe this feature would be much more useful, however, if I were able to alter the speed of the tone series, slow them down or even step through them click by click, hour by hour, day by day, or however I have set the time period. A sighted user can see at a glance that the stock price changed direction three weeks ago. It takes a quick ear to be able to determine the same information from the audible charts.
Making Trades with Robinhood
You can open a Robinhood account with no money, but you need sufficient funds to make trades. For this review I started out with $100, though I have subsequently added funds.
The Robinhood order screen is completely accessible. Once you have a stock on your screen and double-tap the Buy button, you are walked through the needed information, which can be summarized as:
- Order size: How many shares do you wish to buy or sell?
- Order type: Do you wish to make your purchase or sale at the current price (known as a market order) or do you wish to set a price and only make the transaction if the market meets your price (a limit order)?
- Order execution: If you set a limit price and the order is not filled, do you wish to have the order canceled at the end of the day or remain active until canceled?
My first test purchase was for 67 shares of Great Panther Silver Limited (symbol GPL) for $1.44 per share. I subsequently sold the shares for $1.84 each, a cool $26.80 profit, which was just under 30 percent return in just over three weeks and most of which I would have had to give back in commissions at another brokerage.
The Long and Short
Currently, Robinhood does not offer IRA accounts, or allow you to trade mutual funds or bonds. Nor do they offer any stock screening tools or technical studies, such as moving averages, stochastics, Bollinger bands, and other advanced indicators. This information is usually present in chart format, with limited access to screen reader users. If your trading skills would benefit from access to such information, I strongly encourage you to check out an Excel plugin called XLQ, published by QMatix. With this plugin you can stream both historic and real time stock data to an Excel workbook, then access it by row and column, one cell at a time. Even more powerfully, you can use XLQ formulas to automatically generate and text display moving averages, stochastics, Bollinger bands, and dozens of other historic and intraday studies far too "market geek" to describe here. In point of fact, it was an AccessWorld reader who first directed me to this excellent plug-in, so if you are interested, get in touch via the Comment link at the end of this article.
In my opinion Robinhood is a great place for novice stock traders to get started. The platform does not currently allow for "paper trading," which is to say practice trading where real price information is used but no cash or shares change hands. But with zero commissions, nearly anyone with an interest in the stock market can find a few hundred dollars to get started. Veteran traders are quick to observe that success in paper trading rarely continues once actual money is involved. Just a few dollars can add just enough pressure to simulate a much larger commitment, and with Robinhood that's really all you need to start investing.
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